Sunday, September 13, 2009

MY "Nigger"

[NOTE: I hope you'll forgive the obviously provocative title of this post. Hopefully, it will become clearer by the end.]

Given the popular story that is told in this country about the differeneces between the North and the South, you would think that those of us who have spent most of our lives below the Mason-Dixon would have endless, ready-to-hand anecdotes of blatant racism to share. This is not true of my experience. In fact, my (relatively) short time living in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut yielded FAR more run-ins with explicit racism than my considerably greater time living in Tennessee and North Carolina. In the seven years that I lived the Northeast, I experienced the occurance of not one, but FOUR, incidences of white (fraternity) boys dressing up in blackface. (The story of one of those incidents, at Penn State, is here.) And I heard, first-hand, the N-word used more times in those short years than I had ever heard, or have heard since, back home. (As an aside, I have often wondered whether or not my Southern accent might have further encouraged some Northerners, who were already inclined to use racial epithets, to assume I would be a sympathetic audience for that kind of speech.) Of course, that is not to imply that there is actually less racism in the South, but only that-- again, in my experience-- it tends to be more subtle and nuanced than stereotypes of the South would suggest. Even people who sport the Rebel Flag (pictured above) tend to explain that first by DENYING that they do so because they are racists. Symbols of Confederate culture are often cited as being blatantly racist in the same way that racist epithets are, but Southerners young and old these days know that such symbolic content needs to be disavowed. "It's about heritage, not hate," one will often hear. Bad faith analyses aside, my point is that-- contrary to what most people think-- Southern racists tend to be a lot more subtle in their prejudice than popular accounts of them would suggest.

Not so in the following story, unfortunately.

Recently, I went out with a few of my new colleagues to do karaoke at a fairly typical dive-bar here in Memphis. We were a mixed group: Northerners and Southerners, gay and straight, black and white, Americans and immigrants. We sat, we ordered a pitcher, we chatted, and eventually we started perusing the books that list the karaoke songs. Nothing to write home about so far. Then, one in our group, who is African-Amercan, showed the rest of us a page in the book she was holding. Scrawled across the page was the word: "NIGGER." Not that this would make a difference, but it wasn't scrawled on a page that listed songs by a black artist or next to a particular song like Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted and Black" or James Brown's "Say It Loud." It appeared to be just there, totally random, in the middle of the book, as if its author just couldn't hold it in anymore and decided any old page would do. For some reason, this seemed more egregious to me than if it had been written on the bathroom stall where, at least, one could imagine that the author wanted everyone to see it. Rather, this location seemed more maliciously stealth, as if s/he were thinking: they'll never see this one coming...

As I've grown older and as I spend more and more of my time exclusively around professionals and academics, I find that I have less exposure to this kind of blatant racism. But self-selecting groups like the ones I generally spend time with tend to give one a skewed picture of the world. In particular, I find that it has handicapped me in my ability to respond to the kinds of events like what happened at the karaoke bar. What does one say? How does one react? Obviously, it's an outrage. Obviously, it's wrong and offensive. But just as obviously, I think, it's not indicative of "the South" as a whole, nor is it without a history and a context that can, even if it doesn't excuse or justify, at least explain it. Is there a difference between finding "nigger" scrawled in a karaoke book or on a bathroom stall in Memphis really different from having a convenience store clerk warn you about your "nigger" neighbor in Philadelphia?

I am inclined to say: Yes, it is different. I'm sure that a part of that inclination is motivated by a desire to apologize for the South, which is my home and to which I feel a kind of defensive loyalty. But I am not, I hope, an unreflective apologist for the South. The truth is that I believe our long and complicated history of explicit racism makes us more responsible for its perpetuation. We should know better. We should do better. We should take greater offense at the violation of those moral and social rules of which we are not, and cannot pretend to be, ignorant. When I taught my Philosophy of Race course at Penn State, my students always and only talked about "racism" by reference to "things that happen in the South," as if it were a regionally-specific phenomenon. Racism in the South is the rule, and in the North it is an anomaly, they thought. On the contrary, when I teach Philosophy of Race here in Memphis, each and every student already considers him- or herself implicated in the discussion. "Racists" are not some strange people far, far away. "They" are one's neighbors, one's family, one's own self. Try as one might, there's no escaping accountability for it.

What I try to teach my Philosophy of Race students, and what I think the students here in the South are more inclined (even if reluctantly) to accept, is that the anonymous "NIGGER" in the karaoke book might as well be my "NIGGER." Racism is not primarily an individual phenomenon (though it is also that), but a structural, systemic phenomenon. I cannot, in good conscience, utterly divorce myself from responsibility for the appearance of "nigger", for the set of beliefs and affects that motivate its appearance. I either contribute to a world that makes that offense, that hatred, that kind of perverted pride possible... or I contribute to a world that makes it impossible. As long as it is possible in MY world, I am obligated to account for it. And that account will always oblige me, implicate me, and condemn me in some way.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Leigh,

Tracy here. I found your post interesting and have in fact heard various intellectual friends in Northern states state something similar: that Northerners use the South as a foil to try and hide their own racism. While I think there is some truth to this, I do not think it entirely sums up the situation. Exhibit A: segregated proms. Why do such events continue to exist in many Southern cities? This is obviously not a phenomenon without meaning and is different from just utilizing a Southern symbol like the dixie flag. Exhibit B: the fear of intermarriage and miscegenation which continues to exist in the South and which I think is more pervasive than in the Northeast and elsewhere. I recently read a NY Times article on mixed churches in the South that stated that people frequently leave such churches when their children reach their teen years out of fear they might start dating the black kids they go to church with. Almost a quarter of marriages in CA are interracial. Despite the high percentages of blacks in the south, the numbers of interracial couples are still startlingly low. RI, where I grew up, was only 4% black and about 10% Latino. Yet, I saw about as many interracial couples there as here. Yes, I heard the word "nigger" a lot--applied by blacks to each other and to their white friends. Other than that--even amongst the working class Portuguese- and Irish-Americans I grew up with--using that term was socially verboten. My uncle would use this term all the time. Not only did his son marry and Indian muslim and his daughter date a black man for years, but he was seen as an embarassment to the family and somebody you just couldn't bring out in public. These are my initial reactions to your post.

John said...

Interesting post. I have many thoughts. First, I hope you don't take offense to my removal of the link from my Facebook page, but that's a word I can't have there. I know you're doing things with it, commenting on it, and so on. Still, to me it is an unutterable. That's an interdiction I'll stay with. I trust you'll understand.

I heard the n-word on a near weekly, at least, basis in Memphis and surrounds, and had it said in class numerous times. I've never heard it in over a dozen years of living in the Midwest and Northeast, and had never once heard the word growing up in So Cal and the Northwest. Anecdotes to anecdotes. Not sure what to draw from that.

I would take a few issues with your take on South-North stuff. As you know, I have real affection for the South in many ways. At the same time, never in a million years would I raise my mixed-race child in the South. Maybe Atlanta or urban Virginia or the research triangle in North Carolina (all of which are "exception" places in the South, in all honesty). That's it. Nowhere else I've ever been in the South, though. Not Birmingham, not Jackson, and sadly not Memphis. Just being honest.

Racism has many faces. You know that. It's institutional, habitual, and visceral. Person-to-person, impersonal-to-person.

The South has a visceral racism unmatched by the rest of this country. I just can't imagine honestly saying any different, even if you love the place. It is a region that gave up slavery only after losing hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of its own white people in war. Otherwise, how many more generations of slaves would the South have supported? Not barely fifty years ago (I'm 40, so barely my lifetime ago), it was a region that blasted with water and bombs non-violent protesters who wanted, what, to drink and eat in the same room? That's exceptional.

Any parallels one draws with the rest of this country have to reach to find subtle, subconscious, and institutional versions of kind of the same thing. That reach says something: in the South, it is visceral. No need to dig to show structural stuff. All the institutional stuff is there, right there. But there is virtually no mixing of racial groups in housing, schools, or love. And black poverty? Unspeakable in the South. Again, no version of the same elsewhere. We have to be honest about this stuff.

None of this is to say that there isn't intense cultural contact and a rich literary, musical history between black and white people. Much of what we call "American culture" is Southern culture, in particular, black culture from the South. But that's survival of the most unspeakable brutality and pain in this country's history. Survival. Not life.

Obama had no chance of winning the deep South. Why not? Because no white person would vote for him. It's really that simple.

All of which goes to my focused disagreement with you. I don't think the South has a complicated history with race. I think the "North," which is a strangely general term (the Midwest? the West coast? Southwest? Northwest?), has a complicated relation - both progressive and gross. The South has an uncomplicated relation. It's all brutal. I can't really find the progressivism concerning race. Only the courts and the National Guard integrated the South. White Southerners never, ever stepped up en masse. We have to be honest about this.

I imagine that this response will get your defensiveness, understandably!, going, but remember that I have great affection for the South. It's just that my affection has certain limits, as when my wife asked me - when a job in her area opened up in Memphis a couple of years ago - if we could live there as an interracial couple with a mixed-race child. What sort of neighborhoods we could live in. Where we would have a community. My honest answer was "nowhere." I don't think that's cynicism. I think that's being realistic.

Tracy said...

Thank you, John. I have had the same thought you expressed on many occasions. My group of people invented the modern slave trade and had colonies all over the world. Some consider the Portuguese to have been the most brutal colonizers of India. And colonial attitudes towards blacks in particular remain. Yet, the Portuguese viewpoint is that blacks are like children--they need whites to take care of them--not that blacks are subhuman. And miscegenation was never banned in the massive former Portuguese colony of Brazil. In fact, you see interracial couples and mixed people everywhere there. Portuguese people used miscegenation--yes--as a strategy of domination, but on the other hand, we/they also accorded a certain irresistibility to black women. In the U.S., among Portuguese immigrants, this idea has been expanded to include black men. From the age of twelve or so, I knew it was not unlikely that I would marry a black person, which is in fact what happened. (And perhaps twenty to thirty percent of my cousins have done the same.) How many non-poor white southerners have such thoughts growing up? My point is that my group is racist and my group traded and kept slaves, but even we--both historically and today-- have a much less fearful view of blacks than white southerners.

Tracy said...

Just to clarify, twenty or thirty percent of my cousins are in interracial marriages, but not necessarily with blacks.

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks, Tracy and John, for your comments... BUT, I have to say that I'm a bit disappointed in what seem to me like seriously reductive characterizations. And also a bit disappointed in your unwillingness to see what has happened around you in the North, except as a pale version of the iniquities of the South.

@Tracy: There are, admittedly, a VERY FEW places in the South that still permit "segregated" proms. What happens when the story of those places come to light? They are ROUNDLY criticized by Southerners as "backward" and "non-representative" of the region. For that reason, I think it's unfair to use them as representatice, in the same way that I think it would be unfair of me to use the Penn State "blackface" story as indicative of Penn State students' general attitude toward race. At the same time, segregated proms (and churches, and workplaces, and neighborhoods, and schools) are all over the North as well, only nobody says so. Instead, everyone relies on the (very shaky) distinction between de jure and de facto segregation as a manner of ignoring that the results of both are the same. So, a few high schools in Mississippi and Alabama allow segregated proms. At least those practices can be contested in court. The widespread conventional practice of the same exclusion happens in the North (and the South) all the time, only we can't (or don't) do anything about it.

RE: Interracial relationships. Guess what? Present in both places. Both embraced and abhored in both places. As someone who spent over a quarter of her life in an interracial relationship (half of the time in the North and the other half of the time in the South), I can attest that the challenge is the same in both places-- namely, to find a community in which judgment about such relationships is either absent or at least restrained. Those communities can be found both places, and they can feel painfully absent in both places as well.

@John: you say that black poverty is "unspeakable in the South"-- suggesting that it not the case in the North. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that poverty disproportionately affects racial minorites EVERYWHERE in this country. Perhaps the reason "black" poverty strikes you as "unspeakable" in the South is because POVERTY is (carte blanche) unspeakable in the South-- all the worse for those at the bottom of the bottom of the barrel. That observation is no credit to the North.

You both seem to suggest that you have not experienced "visceral" racism in the North, a claim which I find, quite simply, unbelievable. My suspicion is, rather, that it is precisely the cultural/regional self-identity of the North that allows one to ignore the pervasive (de facto) segregation, the prejudice and intolerance, the (economic, social, and political) distributive injustice there... to displace its "intentional" occurence to the South. The fact is-- not "anecdotally"-- that these are all structural problems in a racist society, and no particular region of a racist society is exempt from them. The problem that I was trying to highlight in this post was that there is a real problem with making those problems "anomalous" in some segments of a racist society and "indiciative" of other segments of that same racist society. My point there is not primarily a consequence of my affection for the South. It is what it is.

(continued below...)

DOCTOR J said...

I know you will both object to this, but I think that one advantage of this popular regional mythology about "race" and "racism" for the South is that Southerners are not allowed the luxury of ignoring their own implication in the ugliness of racism. For all of the prejudice and segregation that people like to reference about places like Memphis, for example, it is very hard to be a white person in Memphis and have little-to-no (real, significant, and formative) contact with black people. That was not my experience in the North, where it was entirely commonplace to find people interacting almost exclusively with members of their own race, with no reason to ever think of "race" at all, except in that vacuous, self-congratulatory way that accompanies bad-faith residents of a "multicultural" metropolis.

You both know, I hope, that I have a tremendous amount of personal respect for you both, and I appreciate your commenting on the blog. Please don't take my response here as an attack, just a provocation to more carefully examine the regional- and cultural-prejudices of which you both seem quite confident.

Perhaps too confident...

Tracy said...

Leigh,

I did not imply or state that I have not experienced visceral racism in the north. I shared the story of my uncle, who is a visceral racist but has alienated others, including his own children, through this. He is the only white person I have known in the northeast who would throw around the word nigger. And like I said, I grew up in a white ethnic, working class family! My family are not politically correct by any means, and they express colonial Portuguese ideas pretty frequently, but these ideas--and I have fought them many times--are different from and I think less evil than old-school southern ideas that blacks are animals.

Yes, de facto segregation in the north is somewhat widespread. But, let's not forget that there are far fewer blacks in northeastern states, so that is part of why people have less contact with blacks. And de facto segregation is less ugly--I don't see how you can disagree--than spraying blacks with hoses and sicking dogs on them because you can't bare to have them--God forbid!--rub elbows with you in a restaurant. This was just a few decades ago. Let's be real here.

And if the realities of interracial marriage are so similar--a fact which I dispute--then I would like to see that black-white marriages are more frequent in the South in a way proportional to the larger black population. If you can show that, I will shut my trap. Are black-white marriages five times more likely in Mississippi than in Massachusetts? If they aren't, then you got some 'splainin' to do, kid.

Anonymous said...

This was an interesting read, but I was a little frustrated by some of the ill-informed comments that followed this particular post.

I think we can all agree, though, that racism and racist thoughts/behavior are not region-specific. However, given the historical trajectories of the region(s)-in-question, I do think racism can come in a variety of forms - some perhaps more apparent than others - but definitely no less significant than its subtler counterpart.

John, I really think that Obama being a Democrat had more to do with his inability to garner the vote in the South than the (imagined) "issue" of his race. Not only that, but one Southern state that has historically voted Republican went Blue this past year: North Carolina. I think the election results here are indicative of a sea change within the context of the modern/contemporary South.

And, seriously now, you really think you'd have that hard of a time living in Memphis as an interracial couple, raising a mixed-race child? I really wouldn't expect this to be problematic in that particular TN city. I was born in Nashville and lived in the South until I went to grad school in New York. Until I came to The City, I really couldn't recall hearing nearly as many racist epithets/slurs and seeing racial injustices in the entirety of my Southern upbringing as I did in just a year of what many consider to be one of the more progressive cities in our country (allegedly).

In my experience, racism is as pervasive in the North (which, to my understanding, if we're speaking in the context of the "North/South" binary, is considered to be the Union/Federal states that participated in the American Civil War, but states north of the Mason-Dixon Line in particular) as in the South. I've noticed this is particularly true in big, Northern cities with wide-ranging diversity. Basically, racism isn't region-specific. Some regions, though, have different ways in which they administer their loathing for other races/cultures/relgions/etc...

With this in mind, it seems apparent that the South has and still is managing to come a long way in terms of how pervasive racism is in a relatively short period of time, historically-speaking (the dramatic contrasts between the South in the 1950s/1960s and today, for instance). I certainly don't think you could say the South has gone unchanged during the above-mentioned timeframe.

That said, it is clear that the states considered to fall within the context of the "North" had a considerable head-start on the South in terms of progressive attitudes towards race/ethnicity/etc...Given the fact that the South has "come a long way" from the era of segregation - or slavery, for that matter - it becomes clear that racism in the South may not be the status quo anymore, as attitudes have surely changed over time.

I guess that leaves other parts of the country's opinions and beliefs as to what *really* goes on in the South to run wild and go unsuppressed. Is"regionism/regionalism" the only/last socially acceptable form of forcing an attitude of cultural, social, political, etc. superiority/advancement over a geographic region where residents are held accountable (and, in some respects, I would say responsible) for said region's rather regrettable history and institutions?

I dunno. Just some ideas.

Tracy said...

Here's the data:
http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/censr-5.pdf

4% of couples are interracial in Massachusetts compared with 2% in Mississppi, a state that is almost 40% black. I understand, Leigh, that you want to have some regional pride and that you don't want people to be facile, but the numbers on this chart clearly speak for themselves.

DOCTOR J said...

Tracy, if the mere incidence of interracial marraige were itself enough to serve as evidence of anti-racism, I might agree with you. But, alas, it is not. The challenge, I think, is in YOUR court... that is, YOU need to show that interracial marriages are LESS socially-problematic in the North than in the South. I'm not ocnvinced that the census numbers prove this all by themselbves (though I am willing to admit that they certainly DO serve to augment your position). Nevertheless, one could easily imagine a situation in which a society that does not see itself as "racist," but still IS "racist," might be more conducive to interracial marriages than one that (as a result of internal and external characterizations) is figured as "racist."

Also, it's a bit of a straw-man argument to compare the contemporary North to the Jim Crow South. Nobody is spraying anybody with fire-hoses anymore. Nobody is sic-ing dogs on anyone. Everybody can eat at the same lunch counters. That argument is jst bad sophistry.

Let me return to my original point, again, which was that the culture and history of racism in the South is one in which Southerners are more conditioned to "own" American racism than Northerners. This is not because Southerners are prima facie more racist, but rather because theyoccupy a rols in our comlex national history that does not allow them to escape implication. For my part, I think that situation allows for infinitely more possibility than a situation where one is allowed the constant luxury of sloughing off responsibility.

The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.

Tracy said...

Leigh,

Honestly, I think you are getting a bit slippery now. Since it is much more difficult to prove that something is "socially problematic" than it is to prove the incidence of something, your challenge is an almost impossible, or at least much more difficult, one to fulfill. While putting forth such a challenge is a smart rhetorical move to make, it doesn't change the fact that I was the only one on this page who moved from mere anecdotes to actual evidence and that that evidence completely supported my and John's position. You can say the ball is in my court all night long, but you have provided no real evidence for your stance so far. (And I'm not trying to be bitchy here; I'm just stating the truth.)

Anonymous said...

You want facts? Don't know if this is actually possible...Where/how would you suggest going about quantifying the propensity towards racism within a specific region?

Anonymous said...

...because surely intermarriage doesn't qualify some kind of edge in terms of cultural/social progress.

John said...

Respect returned, of course.

We're working with generalizations because that's what it means to talk about regions and peoples. No generalization means "each and every person." Of course not.

I'd never raise my kid in a Southern city. No way, even though I love the South. Wouldn't subject my kid to that. You say you have to search out communities for interracial relationships? Sure. But I can't imagine being in Memphis with a black-white mixed-race kid. Anywhere. If one wanted to be mobile, that is. I have to seek out some pretty remote places in New England to find uncomfortable surrounds. We spend a lot of time in a lot of different places. Looks? Sure. But I've never waited to hear the n-word in, say, rural Vermont. Or worried about being beaten. In rural Mississippi or Tennessee? Come on now...

Having significant contact with black people in Memphis is a numerical matter. The city is too black to not have such contact. Contact has little impact on hate. Sadly.

Never heard the n-word outside the South. We can go back and forth anecdotally, but I'm sayin' it. Never heard it. Heard it once a week or so in Memphis for six years. Students said it in my class and in my office. Wtf?!

The South is the measure of racism because the South defended slavery, then segregation, and would never have changed those institutions without the intervention of the courts and the domestic military. Even with the extreme courage of the activists, the conscience of white Southerners was never significantly moved. The South is the measure of racism because it is where the horror of lynching thrived. You can't reinvent history. The South hosted the worst of the worst when it comes to Af-Americans. The world hasn't been turned upside-down in the past fifty years. To be blunt, the South has earned this reputation.

My concern is that talk of or the term "the South" erases black people with the focus on white racism, but here we're talking about white racism. In terms of white racism, I guess I cry very few tears for Southern whites. This is historically well-earned, like Polish anti-semitism or Romanian anti-Roma hate. All generalizations are inaccurate and miss a lot. People and peoples change, slowly, but they do change. And people rise above history. But being the measure of anti-black hate? White Southern history has earned this, and I'm not sure we can dispute it.

John said...

So, yes, the "North" (what is meant here, with this phrase? What part of the country?) looks pretty pale, historically, in relation to the South. The numbers on interracial marriages are also pretty striking. Poverty rates are instructive as well. There is very, very little black middle-class in the South, outside of Atlanta and parts of NC. Chicago? Cleveland? NYC? Philly? DC? LA? Significant middle-class. That's not nothing.

Lastly, in terms of politics and Obama...what does that mean that Obama is a Democrat, so won't get white votes? The Southern strategy, of course, was the Republican strategy to sew up the South by playing to the racism of Southern whites. It worked. That says something. Sorry. Massachusetts has very few black people, as a population, yet the governor is black. Washington state elected a black governor almost twenty years ago. Very few blacks in that state. While anecdotal in its own right, this is not nothing.

I guess my big take on all of this, and this is how I think about my love for the South and my hate for racism, is that the South is a wonderful place, full of cultural surprises and existential depth. The tragedy of the South is that it is so hateful, despite its cultural riches. And that its cultural riches are largely generated by the brutality of its history. It takes a lot to be a white Southerner and not racist. That makes the anti-racist white Southerner an exceptionally important person...for this reason, I always thought Bill Clinton was important.

I wish I could say that I detected a sea change and that anti-hate was on the rise in the South. But it is the one reliably Republican region and the last place (outside of Utah, really) that one can imagine, say, gay marriage being legalized (contrast that with New England, where everyone is on board and there's no real will to overturn things).

What I think white Southerners, good and bad, have to ask honestly is why the region is so comfortable with so much hate. That's a hard question. I've asked myself, as a native Idahoan (kind of native), why that state was an easy place for the Aryan Nations to exist...and I know that the state asked itself that, as a group of people. Southerners need to be honest and ask the same sorts of questions.

DOCTOR J said...

Tracy, I get it. I really do appreciate your appeal to non-anecdotal evidence. (And also, incidentally, I don't think you're just being "bitchy"!) The problem is, of course, that the kind of social-science evidence that you are referencing is only good for proving or disproving de jure racism, and not the de facto racism that we are discussing. The question is: once the legal proscriptions against miscegenation are removed, does the incidence-rate of interracial marraiges accurately reflect the "acceptance" of those unions?

I don't think so.

So, if the point we are trying to make is about whether or not interracial marriages are accepted (and not just legally permitted) then I think that something more than census data is required. This may resign us to anecdotal evidence, but I don't think so. For example, one could cite evidence ( like this) that marriage rates among American blacks (marrying anyone) is already statistically lower than that for whites. That sort of evidence, it seems to me, says more about the relationship between the institution of marriage and racial categories than the census data you provided.

Whatever data one uses, it seems to me that the most significant figure is that only SEVEN PERCENT of all marriages in the U.S. are interracial. So, no matter what "region" of this country we're using, it seems like the one consistent factor, as determined by social-scientific data anyway, is that interracial marriages are unusual. Does the fact that they're more frequent in the North than the South mean that they're more accepted? Not really. It only means they're slightly less unusual.

Anonymous said...

John -

What exactly do you mean by you "Wouldn't subject" your kid to growing up in a Southern city? Now you've gone and made me feel guilty for happening to be born where I happened to be born! Does the South really occupy such a negative place in your mind that you genuinely think your child would have a shabbier upbringing here, or be more prone to ill-treatment? Surely not, I would hope. Racism is everywhere - I can't stress that enough. Its frustrating that people who live outside the South hold that particular part of the country in such low esteem that its assumed that I must be complicit in the varying degrees of racism here. Just like any place, the South is different from spot-to-spot. Sure, I don't doubt you'd experience racial slurs being hurled if you were, say, in Pulaski, TN (where the KKK was founded), but you simply can't say the same thing about, say, Nashville, which is relatively cosmopolitan/diverse for its rather small size. I just wish there wasn't this ideation of the North's lack of racism in relation to the "rampant" character of racism in the South - that (mis)conception, mind you, seems to be propagated almost exclusively by people who live in the North. Curious...

John said...

Would any of us dispute that qualification, though? I mean, no one is denying that racism is one of the defining features of contemporary life in the U.S. All indicators are bad for black people. The question is whether the South is a remarkable region for its anti-black racism.

In such a shaded discussion and set of distinctions, statistical trends - especially when coupled with the percentage of Af-Ams in the South compared to the non-South - are instructive.

Occurrences of interracial marriage say something about the attitudes of white people. It says that they do not exclude black people as possible life-partners. When you see gaps, then pair those gaps with the percentage of blacks and whites in a state, you're seeing the life decisions that come, in part, as a result of local prejudices.

Godschocolate said...

Unfortunately Tracy can not reply until much later because she needs to grade papers, and as a hot blooded lady, she has not been concentrating on grading, which she needs to do. (She just didn't want to leave y'all hangin')

Andrea
(Tracy's thermometer)

John said...

Anonymous, that was a casual term, so I don't mean it as literally as you read it. Sounded more severe than I meant.

At the same time, with a choice (we don't always have them), I'd much prefer to raise my mixed-race, black/white child in a place where he'd be less likely to hear the n-word hurled at him and his mother. Were I in the South, I'd make the best of it. Of course.

Spot-to-spot? That's the problem for me. In New England, there's no spot-to-spot. The region, with few exceptions, is just fine with us as a family.

Since there is much speculation here about the psyche of Northerners, let me as (I think) a Northerner (I'm from the NW...is that "Northerner"?) speculate a bit on Southern defensiveness. I think it is a way of coping with the guilt of such a terrifying recent and long history. If Southerners can say "well, it's just this bad everywhere," then history gets neutralized just a little bit, rather than having to face the truly exceptional character of Southern racism, hate, and violence. That's why I ended my way-too-long post above (I obviously care about this stuff) with a sense of what, to my mind, white Southerners need to do. Ask the hard questions. Why does the Southern strategy work, year in and year out? And so on.

Speculation goes both ways.

No one denies that racism and segregation are huge problems in the whole country. Only fools would. The question for me is how one is to live in a racially mixed place, family, or community. That living is all over, say, Cambridge, MA. And yet Gates could have the madness happen at his home. But there is no Cambridge in Birmingham, Memphis, New Orleans, or Jackson. That is instructive and should call for some collective introspection. Just as, I hope, the Gates case provoked some collective introspection in the People's Republic of Cambridge.

Anonymous said...

Hi, John -

Sure, I'll admit to being defensive (impassioned?). I would hope anyone would be defensive as well, if the part of the country they grew up in was regularly accused of being backward and racist. So, yeah, Southerners have a big chip on their shoulders - but that chip (like many others like it in other situations) may not be wholly deserved and may, in some respects, be completely false (i.e., "spot-to-spot").

As for the "spottiness" of attitudes in the South - certainly there are attitudes that vary from spot-to-spot and even from neighborhood to neighborhood in every borough of New York? And that's just one city.

Point being, when you have people, you have opinions/attitudes. Right now, you're talking about an attitude that may or may not exist throughout the American South.

I, on the other hand, want to draw your attention to the fact that these (mis)conceptions regarding the South and racism are, in and of themselves, disparaging and derogatory views directed toward a particular part of the country taht work to establish an (ideological) hierarchy of superiority - a mindset that, when it all boils down to it, really isn't much better, as it uses the many of the same strategies for setting up a (false) black/white, North/South, Us/Them type of binary that really doesn't hold its own in an age grounded in "grey" areas and multiplicity.

DOCTOR J said...

Just a quick note about "Southern defensiveness"... or at least insomuch as it applied to me.

(John, this is mostly in response to your last post.)

I want to acknowledge that much Southern defensiveness about racism is meant to excuse or apologize for what is (for better or worse) our own particular variety of that phenomenon. However, I hope that the original content of this post showed that that is NOT what I was attempting here. The reason I chose the (admittedly provocative) title "MY 'Nigger'" is that I wanted to emphasize the fact that, despite all our protests to the contrart, Southern racism is still a very real, very ugly, part of our lives. And inasmuch as it is, none of us are exempt from responsibility for it.

Tracy said...

John,

You've taken the words right out of my mouth. I just don't see how one can argue that intermarriage rates only relate to de jure intermarriage. That makes no sense to me. Whether or not it is legal has nothing to do with this! De jure, intermarriage is allowed everywhere.

Consider this, MA is roughly 15% nonwhite. That means that if every single minority person married a white person, the intermarriage rate would be 15%. Unless, I'm getting the math wrong, which is highly possible with my dubious math skills. But assuming I'm right, then with the 4% intermar. rate that does exist, between 1 and 3 and 1 and 4 non-white people is intermarried. Compare Miss. There, about 40% of the state is nonwhite but only 2% of marriages are interracial. That means, only 1 in 20 non-white persons is intermarried. The difference is astounding, even considering low marriage rates amomg blacks more generally. Quite literally, there are not enough Asians in Mass. to result in a 4% intermmarriage rate unless every single one married a white person. Clearly, whites in that state are intermmarrying with people of various races. Also, though I agree that intermmariage rates in the U.S. are somewhat low, the 7% is rather misleading, since the country is about 30% non-white and so the numbers need to based off that, not the number of whites, which exceeds minorities 2 to 1. Finally, the 25% intermmarriage rate in CA is quite significant.

Sadly, this needs to be my last post. I am so behind on my work tonight!

Tracy said...

ack, sorry for the horrendous spelling!

Godschocolate said...

I was thinking about our reactions to "nigger" being written in that karaoke book and I realized that I could have done something about this (I am not going to speak about what anyone else should have done).

I could have gone up to the DJ and told her about it and requested that she remove the book until the that page could be taken out and re-copied. But I completely dismissed it as well "par for the course," this is the South. I honestly think if I was in Boston and I saw that written, my reaction would have been different and I would have immediately complained and been outraged. But in Memphis, I was like oh well, which I think was not the best response because I was responsible to do something or voice my dissent. Instead, I just accepted it, which is an attitude that won't change anything. Even if I am in the South, I still have the responsibility to speak out. I shouldn't give up on the South.

Andrea

petya said...

I could be completely off-the-mark here, but it seems to me that Leigh's point got a little bit misinterpreted.

The way I read it, it did not seem to me that Leigh was making the point that Southerners are not as racist as people think they are. Or that Northerners are fake and pretend they are not racist when they really are.

I read this entry to mean that Southerners seem to have a very different relationship to racism than Northerners do (hence, the title of the blog entry). Racism in the South is more personal, it's something that you are constantly aware of, think about, reflect on (precisely because of all the things that Tracey and John have mentioned) whereas in the North, racism is something that "racist people", i.e. OTHERS do. If I am not racist, I am not implicated.

Leigh, I hope I am not putting words in your mouth.

petya said...

P.S.
I share Andrea's confusion over why none of did anything about it. Speaking for myself, I think I was just so shocked that my mind went completely blank. Which, of course, is no excuse. :(

Lacey said...

Dr. Johnson,

Hm, I particularly enjoyed this post, having also lived in both Philadelphia and Memphis, and I have a few comments to add as well.
The first is that I think the outliers of places are interesting to note...places like Florida, Montana, even Maine to a certain extent---places that do not fit into the categories of "South" or North" or "West". Interestingly, my experience in living in both Florida and Montana is that they both seem to ignore race all together. It simply is not spoken about. If it is, it is in hushed tones as though sure to offend the person sitting next to them. Though, perhaps this is also the case with any minority group at all, in the sense that the "outlier states" seem to be particularly homogenous, with the exception of Miami. I think that this perpetuation of homogeneity is almost equal to the perpetuation of the Confederate flag or segregated proms or the vocalization of "the nigger next store" comments. All of these tangible/audible comments should be held with equal disgust to the silence around the same racism in places outside of the North and the South. The North and the South were the first places here-and so, places outside of them seem to assume that racism is "their issue"; we are just saying out of it. But by refusing to engage in fruitful dialogue, racism is perpetuated.

My other comment switches gears just to wonder about the roles of generational perspectives with regards to race and wondering if things are changing? I also was in an inter-racial relationship that was regarded by the general community at large as "disdainful" "sinful" and "repulsive". And yet, neither of us, nor our peers, saw anything wrong with it. It was the older generation that spoke ill of it. What is your experience with this?

Peace, and thanks for posting this-
Lacey

Kerry said...

Hi Leigh...

I thought you stated, very well, what a lot of us who grew up in the south feel.

I was 40 years old before crossing the Mason-Dixon line. I had many friends who were from various northern states, and many times, I felt apologetic for being born and bred in the south, and therefore obviously with racism and so many of the other stereotypes of southerners. I heard endless conversations in regards to how "bad" the South was. I fully expected a land of open minded, people.

I came back and never told them that I saw very little difference.

Thank you saying what I've thought and never said, nor knew how to say.

DOCTOR J said...

@Petya; No, you weren't putting words in my mouth. I think you've captured my original point precisely. Thank you.

@Lacey: You're right to point out that generational differences are a significant operative variable (in both the North and South). This is why I was objecting to what seemed like comparisons between the contemporary North and the Jim Crow South above. Your experience with interracial relationships is very similar to mine, that is, younger people seemed far more accepting (or, at least, indifferent) than older people. It's important to make note of these changes over time, which seem to be occuring faster than we can properly theorize... partially, I think, because we're still so attached to outdated conceptions of racism-in-Dixie.

The South is a long way from perfect... but it ain't what it used to be.

M said...

living in arkansas, what i've noticed: racism in the south tends to be more ideological, less immediate. "white, protestant culture"...and the resulting fear of difference...seems much stronger in the south. while in the north, racism seems more immediate, less ideological.

which is to say that i've witnessed more racism in the north, people saying stupid things, using the "n" word in so on. it's more out in the open. but in the south, it's there, just deeply rooted...not expressed as much, quieter...just buried in the larger world view, shaping people's reactions to events/people around them. repellant, wherever it finds expression.

Marlinee said...

This part of Leigh's discussion is something I've often thought:

I think the students here in the South are more inclined (even if reluctantly) to accept, is that the anonymous "NIGGER" in the karaoke book might as well be my "NIGGER." Racism is not primarily an individual phenomenon (though it is also that), but a structural, systemic phenomenon. I cannot, in good conscience, utterly divorce myself from responsibility for the appearance of "nigger", for the set of beliefs and affects that motivate its appearance. I either contribute to a world that makes that offense, that hatred, that kind of perverted pride possible... or I contribute to a world that makes it impossible. As long as it is possible MY world, I am obligated to account for it. And that account will always oblige me, implicate me, and condemn me in some way."

My comment is somewhat related to this.

In my experience living 20+ years in Memphis and growing up in the deep south, being raised by a northern father (from wisconsin) and a Thai mother, I and the "southerners" living along side of me are called upon daily to confront racism and account for it. Like John points out, our history practically requires us to do so. What I "like" about it is this sense among us that we have a role to play in it and we must remain aware and vigilant about that role.

I'm probably going to get deleted or shot down for the next thing I'm about to say:

I do not believe (in the sense that I am not willing to bet my life on it) that I know anyone, including myself, anywhere--in the south, in the north, in the west, hell, even in Thailand--who is racist-free. So although, I dislike the history down here. I also like that I find more people who are willing to acknowledge their part in all of this, as opposed to simply condemning it as though it doesn't or never has formed a part of them.

Finally, I would add that I want my children to be a part of this. I want them to see it, to ask questions, to understand it as much as possible, and to account for it.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Leigh, this is Susan. Very interesting post! I agree that accusations of racism against the South tend to "otherize" the problem, perhaps leading folks in the North to ignore their own faults. And when I lived in Jersey, it offended me greatly. Aren't negative stereotypes and instantaneous assumptions part of the problem with racism?!

I come from a state with a very racist reputation (Alabama), and a county that is held to be the most racist in that state (Cullman). And I think that the attitude of whites in such areas (I can't speak for the entire South) can be "if they leave me alone, I'll leave them alone." This would explain the lack of interracial marriages, and the segregation that is apparent in many southern schools (like having one "black" school in each county, as was the case in my own county). And this, where it exists, is an extremely dangerous attitude.

This adherence to the "status quo" in very racist areas of the South may also explain the fact that some people claim to have witnessed more extreme expressions of racism in the North or Midwest. (I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr., located the most frightening displays of racism in Illinois, which happens to be where James Earl Ray was from.) If one lives in a culture in which racism is expected and clear lines are drawn (as has traditionally been the case, and is still the case, in certain areas of the South), there is no need to assert it so overtly. As a parallel, one might argue that a man doesn't "need" to beat his wife if she knows her place - if the lines of power are clearly drawn and generally accepted. So overt expressions of racism are not necessarily the truest measure of deep racism; it may be a question of how ingrained the oppression is in one's culture. And I have witnessed that sort of deep oppression in Alabama.

I do, however, think that things are changing in the South. Just this last year, my home county in Alabama was written up in the NYTimes for having elected a black man as a state representative. This is a remarkable shift, given that in my own parents' lifetime there were signs posted in Cullman warning black people that they'd better leave before sunset. But it's a long, long road to equality, and I'm afraid that no one area in this country has too much to be proud of in that regard.

Tracy said...

Susan, a very thoughtful post. I knew there was a reason I like you so much.

anotherpanacea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marlinee said...

Ironic Susan that we both grew up in Alabama. My county was Mobile. I didn't realize that Cullman was held to be the most racist in the state--I kind of thought Mobile had that honor. Heh.

For example, I remember being in grade school when the last KKK lynching occurred in 1981 in downtown Mobile. My brother was beat up at least 3 times a week because of his race. He eventually sought out these beatings, because you know, fuck them. One of my best friends who grew up with me there, Margaret Brown, recently directed the documentary "Order of Myths" about the segregated Mobile Mardi Gras.

Some of the interviews in her movie speak to this notion that you mention of "if they leave me alone, I'll leave them alone." I immediately think about how hard it is to maintain such an attitude when you live in a part of the country where there simply are more black people combined with the slowly shifting values that you mention.

Thanks for your comments.